Economic Justice and Moral Injury

Author: 
Suzi Spangenberg

By Suzi Spangenberg

Delivered at The Church of the Fellowship for All Peoples (Fellowship Church), San Francisco, CA

On May 26th, 2013

 

The screaming. 
That's what shook me. 
The fear and terror held in those screams. 
And then the images. 
People panicking...Running...Trampling each other. 

Children separated from parents,
being pushed down...as adults,
stepping on whoever was in the way,
stretched out their arms and flung themselves forward...
not to help their children, but in an attempt to grab hold of what they believed would bring them some happiness.

As I recently re-watched the many videos which depicted the  violence that happened inside Walmart stores across the nation during last November's Black Friday sales, I was stunned that so many people were willing to camp out overnight and then get violent, trading their souls for cheap material goods. 

People who chose to ignore the Walmart workers - bravely standing outside the stores protesting for a fair living wage -  workers they had to pass in order to get inside to begin their feeding frenzy.

Wal-Mart employs more people than any other company in the United States outside of the Federal
 government, yet the majority of its employees with children live below the poverty line.

"Buy American" banners are prominently placed throughout its stores; however, the majority of its goods are made outside the U.S. and often in sweatshops such as the one that recently collapsed in Bangladesh that resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people.

Walmart has the largest percentage of workers on food stamps and medicaid of any other company in the United States. Workers cannot survive on the wages they are paid and so must rely on government aid to survive.

And while it's easy to point a finger at Walmart, the fact is, their business model is emulated and held up as a success by Wall Street. 

When did we begin to care more about stuff and less about people? 
When did greed become not only acceptable, but celebrated? 
Is this really who we are? 
What are the root causes of that emptiness? 



Theologian Howard Thurman states: "The need for love is so related to the structure of the personality that when this need is not met,
the personality is stunted
and pushed or twisted out of shape."  

I believe many of us have forgotten our interconnectedness and that the absence of love, of deep relationship, creates a void that a person instinctively tries to fill.  

As we feel less and less connected to one another, we feel more and more alone.  That emptiness, that aloneness, that need for love is what we are trying to eliminate with material things, which we hope will mask the pain of feeling this deepest kind of loneliness.  

Something is acquired, a person has feelings of momentary happiness, and then, like a drug, when those feelings wear off, there is a need to go out and get more to feel the same way again. 

People, other people,
are mere obstacles in the way of temporarily easing this empty, yet very deep need.  Unfortunately, the one thing that can fill the hole,
love,
which illuminates our interconnection,
is not something that can be bought. 

I've been thinking about other people who have struggled with feelings of being disconnected. 

Specifically, I've especially been thinking about my dad... a lot.  He was a member of the 10th Mountain Division ski troops during WWII.
He was one of the very few in his regiment to come home alive.
He returned highly decorated with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a broken soul. He became a life long advocate for peace.

He also never spoke about his experiences during the war.

He'd tell funny stories about training at Camp Hale, located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. 
How the men, already elite skiers,
were taught mountain climbing and snow survival skills.
How they burned so many calories during training that they were each given half a pie for dessert.
They were also given free cigarettes and since my father didn't smoke, he'd trade his for more pie.

He said one night he ate 3 whole pies and he was still hungry. I believe it.

One of the few photographs I have of him from that time shows a very handsome, lean man standing on the side of a snow covered mountain with his wooden skis slung over one shoulder. He was smiling widely and looked relaxed and carefree. The photograph was made at Camp Hale before he shipped out.

Once these men arrived in Northern Italy, they did things I have difficulty imagining.
Scaling the 2,000 foot tall vertical sides of Riva Ridge in the Apennines mountains in the darkest part of night with no light to guide them,
all while carrying 85 pound packs, skis, and guns with only strap on metal crampons attached to their boots.

I learned that from an old 10th Mountain Division newsletter. I didn't learn it from my dad because my dad couldn't talk about the war.

Once, when I told him I was going to an anti-war protest in 2003 prior to the beginning of the Iraq War, he quietly said - "that's a really good thing you all are doing. If only everyone understood that war is the hardest on women and children..." his voice trailed off and when I asked what he meant - he quickly changed the subject.

The men of WWII were in a tough place when they came home. They were heroes of "the Good War" and culturally conditioned not to talk about feelings.
So they kept them inside.
They didn't talk about PTSD then. There wasn't a lot of information available about coping with the horrors of war when they returned home.

So they stayed silent and in my father's case, busy. He threw himself into his work and his hobbies. He didn't allow himself time to reflect or remember.  By the time he met my mom, he had gotten pretty good at doing the things that society said a man must do. He had a good job. He drove a nice car. He even got his pilot's license.

He also came home from the war with a temper and you never knew what would set it off.

He was obsessive about security when we were home alone without him. He installed many locks and would get very upset if he came home and discovered we had missed one. I remember one time I overheard him yell at my mom "You don't have any idea what they could do to you and Suzi do you?!?"

I didn't really know what he meant, but it scared me - I could tell whatever it was, it was very bad.

I knew something was wrong with my dad, I just never really knew what it was.

Now I do.

My dad was suffering from moral injury.

What is moral injury? Dr. Gabriella Lettini and Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, authors of the recently released book "Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War" define moral injury as "a negative self-judgment based on having transgressed core moral beliefs and values or on feeling betrayed by authorities. It is reflected in the destruction of a moral identity and loss of meaning. Its symptoms may include shame, survivor guilt, depression, despair, addiction, distrust, anger, a need to make amends and the loss of a desire to live."

My father, like many men who came home from WWII, didn't talk to anyone. His unrecognized injury destroyed my parent's marriage.
They divorced when I was 4.

When I was 6, my father married my beloved step-mom Cynthia. For the first time in my life, I saw glimpses of the man my dad must have been before the war. They were never apart from the time they got married until her death many years later. Even so, with the exception of Cynthia, he was still emotionally distant and even though we would do things together, I always felt like there was a barrier between my dad and the rest of the world.

Decades later, when Cynthia was in hospice, we were able to share many deep conversations.

One day I finally got up the courage to ask her about my dad- why he was distant. She grew quiet and then said "First, you need to know your dad loves you very much. When we met, we were both carrying heavy burdens. We were able to share them with each other. He knows I love and see ALL of him. I know he loves and sees ALL of me." She then told me that the war had come close to completely breaking my dad and before they met, only his incredible strength of will kept him together.

After Cynthia died, my dad and I spent a lot of time together. He still didn't talk about the war.

When he was 90 I went to visit him and he suddenly started to cry. I had only seen my dad cry once before-- when Cynthia died. I just held him and he finally cried out "I'm so glad you do what you do. I wish I'd had the courage to go throw my medals in Bush's face!"
That was all he said. But it was in that moment that I realized just how much the war had cost him.

We all can count the number of people who have died as the result of war. We can also count the injured. We can calculate the many MANY dollars spent.

But I wonder if we have ever calculated all that has been lost among the living?

How many men (and now women) return with parts of them missing - invisible parts that they cannot file a claim for?

How many people like my father lose their connection with those they love and the rest of society?

How many families never get to welcome home the person that left?

Never get to see their parent care free and smiling?

These are some of the costs of moral injury. A deeper and more final cost is that many of those suffering from moral injury ultimately commit suicide.

In thinking about my dad, and the cost of moral injury of war, I have found myself returning again and again to the definition: "a negative self-judgment based on having transgressed core moral beliefs and values or on feeling betrayed by authorities." 

Is it possible that this widespread emptiness exhibited by our out of control materialism is a form of national moral injury?

We are taught that to succeed, we must put ourselves first.   Instead of helping each other so we all can do well, of coming from a place of love in our interactions with others,
we instead are taught that we must compete to be first,
to have the most,
and if we have to step over, or on, people to get there, so be it. 

We want better cars, better homes, better schools for our kids...even when we know there are people living on the street, and schools in poor neighborhoods, such as those in Chicago and Oakland, are being permanently closed.

And the more selfishly we behave, the more disconnected we become.
Deep down, we can sense this is wrong but we push those feelings aside.

We turn away from things that remind us of how far we have strayed from honoring our interconnectedness.

and as people become obstacles to "winning" or obtaining more stuff
we step right over them...or on them...
and see them as nothing more than collateral damage as we do what we need to do to fill that internal hole.

We may feel a moments triumph as we score a "great deal" at Walmart, but soon after, that internal "hole" becomes larger and we need to keep seeking more and more to fill it, causing us to become even further disconnected.

It's a horribly cycle and one that exacts a heavy price.

Vets commit suicide, and as a society, some may argue that we do as well - whether actively or passively as the stress of living in such a disconnected way takes it's toll on us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I am grateful that my dad did not choose this path.
I am grateful he had moments free from anguish thanks to Cynthia's wisdom and love.

And most especially on this Memorial Day weekend,
I recognize that many do not have those anguish free moments and my heart aches for them...
and my heart aches for all the families of veterans who will never again know their loved ones without injured souls...
and for all the families who grasp for things over people,
and everyone who suffers as a result. 

So, what can we do to address this issue?  is it possible for us to even reach those in the 1%, like the CEO's of Walmart, whose decisions are negatively affecting the lives of so many? 

Is it possible to come from a place of love when experiencing people as callous and unfeeling?

I would answer, "Do we have any other choice?" 

Tich Nhat Hanh, in his book "Reconciliation" talks about the need to look deeply at those we perceive as being the cause of our suffering. 

He explains that we are interconnected, so if we hate them, we hate ourselves. 
The only solution is to expand our heart.

He also offers a healing practice that I have found, after some initial resistance and struggle, to be extraordinarily helpful.  
I recognize that this may be a challenging exercise  for some of you, so do what you can--it's a starting place.

I invite you to place yourselves in a comfortable position and as you are able, allow yourself to really focus and contemplate on his words:

<<RING BELL>>

"In understanding and compassion, I bow down to reconcile myself with all those who have made me suffer. 

I open my heart and send forth my energy of love and understanding to everyone who has made me suffer,

to those who have destroyed much of my life and the lives of those I love. 

I know now that these people have themselves undergone a lot of suffering and their hearts are overloaded with pain, anger and hatred. 

I pray that they are transformed to experience the joy of living, so that they will not continue to make themselves and others suffer. 

I see their suffering and do not want to hold any feelings of hatred and anger in myself toward them. 

I channel my energy of love and understanding to them and ask all my ancestors to help them." 

<<LONG PAUSE>>  <<RING BELL>>




My deepest hope is that we can all learn to recognize our interconnectedness...

and as we channel that love, we are able to inspire others to do the same...

that we fill that emptiness more fully and perfectly than any material thing ever could. 

May it be so.
Namaste. 
Blessed be.

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